Mind Your Language

Sikandar Ali

1 May, 2021 12:00 AM printer

A recent video capturing the heated exchange between a doctor and some policemen which did the rounds in the social media once again underlines the need for censoring words that pass through our lips. Words are a double-edged sword as the popular saying goes. Words can inspire, cheer, amuse, astonish, hurt and shock. Hence one needs to think twice before opening one’s mouth. Once words slip out of your tongue they pass the ball into other people’s court.

There are stupid slips that can considerably diminish your public image or expose you to ridicule, if you happen to be a public figure. Former American President George W Bush has had more than a fair share of such slips: “More and more of our imports come from overseas”, he said. One may misunderstand you or for that matter, underestimate you. But how can you account for Bush saying 'They misunderestimated me'? Then you are likely to have taken note of Condoleezza Rice’s discomfiture at her Freudian slip as she uttered, “As I was telling my husb—' and then stopped abruptly, before saying 'As I was telling President Bush....” We know it perfectly well that Condi was Bush’s National Security Adviser and she was unmarried.

You cannot help giggling when Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, D.C. attempts to downplay the crime record of his city: “Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.” But Dan Quayle’s slip is plainly indefensible: “I have made good judgments in the past; I have made good judgments in the future.” California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's one is unsurpassed: “I think that gay marriage should be between a man and a woman.” Political theorist Jason Brennan explains, much to our entertainment, why smart politicians routinely say stupid things: “Because they must appeal to ignorant voters to win.”

Then there are politicians getting their geography painfully wrong. President Trump while speaking to African leaders at a lunch in New York introduced a new country to the world: Nambia. About its location he added 'perhaps it's near Zambia, or Gambia'. Sure enough, he made a fool of himself. Trump might seek solace in the fact that he isn't the first politician to have muddled up his geography in public. President Bush confused Australia with Austria and complimented Australian Prime Minister John Howard, for visiting Austrian troops in Iraq. Again Bush once referred to our 'Grecian' allies. Knowledgeable people like you and me laughed at this blunder, knowing as we do that the correct adjective for people from Greece is “Greek.”

Let's look back at our domestic front. In the late 80's the student organisation of the then military dictator H M Ershad earned notoriety for its frequent armed clashes with rival groups, so fierce that the student wing had to be dissolved. A member of Ershad's cabinet in his public speech unwittingly told the countrymen that they had provided weapons in the hands of the students responding to the need of the hour. As the media took it up, provoking considerable criticism, the concerned minister rephrased his statement the following day saying that by making reference to handing students weapons he indeed meant increased use of 'pen' to further their knowledge. If you believe you are a stickler for truth, then you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that politics is a game where truth is ruthlessly compromised.

Then we have had Home Ministers whose unguarded remarks have regaled the nation off and on. Consider the case of Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir who, on a fine morning, provided us earth-shattering information that the Rana Plaza tragedy was the outcome of the shaking of pillars of the eight-storey building by some BNP men. Since then the idiom 'shaking the pillar' has become part of our lexicon conveying absurdity. Just think of Altaf Hossain Chowdhury who downright embarrassed his party to the point of losing his job by preaching his theory of ‘Allahr mal Allahy loiya gese’ in his reaction to the killing of a girl child in her father’s lap by a mugger’s bullet. For a time this infamous quote acquired such a wide currency that dramatists and moviemakers used it liberally in their dialogues wherever it fitted. Lutfozzaman Babar had the unfailing capacity to amuse us with his curious mix of English and Bangla. When he would tell the press, as he would often do, that ‘We are looking for shatrus (enemies)’ we would know for sure that the enemies he pretended to be looking for were securely sheltered under his own party fold.

In recent times, Latif Siddiqui, then an AL Minister, was put roundly in the dock for a faux pa he allegedly committed involving the Prophet of the Muslims. The poor fellow not just had to give up his portfolio but had to apologise to the nation. Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, an eminent journalist, was also caught in a similar mischief but somehow managed to disentangle himself. The fact is that their words, with all their inanities, were taken up by political interest groups just to fan the fury of the fanatics.

There are politicians who consider foul mouthing to be an essential part of a politician’s gifts. If you have followed what happens inside the Parliament house during the sessions you cannot but agree that 'shuorer bachcha' is a fairly common term which many of its members use with total abandon and which the Speakers in successive terms had to expunge from the records. It brings forth the unsavoury truth that as a nation we have taken leave of our sense of decency. But in using indelicate language none probably equaled a parliamentarian who boasted about his being a six-footer. He guffawed loudly and found it difficult to say anything without resorting to expletives and swear words. ‘Earlier it were dogs that would wag tails but now-a-days, instead, tails wag the dogs’ is what he once said about his own party leadership. He would utter plainly discourteous sentiments bordering on vulgarity without ever bothering who he was talking about not even sparing Bangabandhu. He was dispatched quickly soon after he had been found guilty of war crime. He represents an example of the abysmal depths to which the quality of politics has fallen.

Invectives are by no means limited to the sphere of Parliament but have entered electronic and print media as well. With the proliferation of private channels now there are more talk shows and more chances of language going awry and squabbles escalating into scuffles. To find a proof of intemperate outbursts all you need to do is see some YouTube videos. You may well remember that the editor of a leading Bangla Daily had a strained relationship with Mr. Anwar Zahid, the Minister for Information in Ershad’s cabinet in the mid 80’s. On more occasions than one, the newspaper printed the minister’s name as 'Janwar Zahid' and every time it had distorted the minister’s name, it published a rejoinder the following day saying sorry for the 'inadvertent' mistake. The so-called rejoinder far from palliating only added more insult to the injury.

Words, verbal or written, can play havoc. The present story, though very old, could serve as an apt example to make my point effectively. Maulana Akram Khan got into a much more serious scrape over a rhyme printed in the Azad in his name. It had been composed by the poet Farrukh Ahmad and was intended to be used in political propaganda. The Maulana made one or two minor changes in the wording, believing that a rhyme which bore his name would have greater appeal got it published under his signature. When Farrukh Ahmad saw it he literally exploded with rage. He rushed to the Azad office, stormed into the Maulana’s private room and gave him a dressing-down in unrestrained language. That was the end of Farrukh Ahmad’s association with Azad. The Maulana, having realised that he had committed a faux pas, put the incident behind as best as he could.

Enough said. Isn’t it? Watch your words.


The writer teaches English at

Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet.